Halfway through his senior year in high school Ron York, who grew up in Griffith, Ind., decided he had had enough education and joined the Army. In June 1969 he arrived in Vietnam, a member of the 34th Combat Engineers.
“My engineering outfit was based in Puloy, about 65 miles outside of Saigon,” the 63 year-old former soldier said. “If some general thought he needed a new fire base we were the lucky guys who got to build it.”
They built much more than fire bases. The 34th was responsible for constructing two of the major roads in Vietnam–201 and 213. In addition, they spent a considerable amount of time building bridges of steel and concrete throughout the country.
“My first day in Vietnam a couple of Navy jets flew over and dropped bombs on the V.C. (Viet Cong guerillas) close by. That’s when the reality of war set in for me,” York recalled 40 years later.
“The third day I was in Vietnam we were walking down a road and we heard an explosion in front of us. The thing that got my attention was a piece of shrapnel that hit right by the heel of my boot,” he said. “It was 12-inches long, 3-inches wide and 1/2 an inch thick. The V.C. had dropped a mortar round in the middle of an American ammunition depot.”
Much of York’s year in Vietnam was spent driving a five-ton dump truck for his engineering battalion.
“We had this one bridge we rebuilt five times. As quickly as we could get it built the V.C. would blow it up. The bridge was on Highway 201 about 70 miles from Saigon,” he said.
“One night while setting up the Claymores (anti-personnel mines) I heard this click, I looked down at my boot and realized I was standing on an enemy mine,” York said. “I froze, yelled to a buddy and told him my problem. He called a sergeant who was a land mind specialist.
“The sergeant probed around my foot with his bayonet. Then the told me I was fortunate because the mine wasn’t hooked up. How he knew that I don’t know.
“Sometimes when we were on guard duty at our base camp we’d hear our attack helicopters fly out at night. Standing on top of our bunkers these little two-seater copters would fly 20 to 25 feet over our heads.
“All at once they would engage the enemy. They’d open up on the V.C. with rockets and follow up with their mini-guns that would produce a continuous stream of red tracer bullets,” York said.
“Knowing the V.C. was out there and our attack helicopters were doing this to them was just fine with us. What it probably meant was they weren’t going to come after us the next day.
“Capt. Myers was our company commander. He was a great officer,” York recalled. “For six months in Vietnam we worked seven days a week without a break.
“Then the captain took it upon himself to tell the battalion commander we were going to take a three day break. He took three of our trucks and drivers and went to Saigon and came back with hamburgers, steaks, beer and Cokes. For those three days we ate, slept and partied. Come the fourth morning at 6 a.m. we were loading up our trucks and back on the job again.
“Right after Capt. Myers made major and was sent to battalion headquarters we got another company commander who was entirely different. This new guy impressed us at first because he had to be tough. He had a 101st Airborne patch on one shoulder and an 82nd Airborne patch on the other,” York said.
“He wasn’t with us too long when he showed us how stupid he was. He was cleaning his .45 pistol. He cocked the weapon, it went off and the slug went through one hand, his thigh and into his calf. The last we saw of him he was being flown back to Japan for surgery. That just goes to show you, looks can be deceiving.”
York was in Vietnam when Ho Chi Minh, the charismatic leader of North Vietnam died.
“Forty-five minutes after he passed away everybody in North and South Vietnam knew it. I don’t know how that was possible, but it was,” he said. “It was an eerie feeling that night after his death. It was so still. Even the birds were silent.
“After his death everybody was put on alert. It wasn’t long before our unit received a lot of enemy mortar fire,” York said. “There was one time, between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1970 when we got 33 nights in a row of mortar fire. Fortunately for me I never received a scratch while I was in Vietnam.”
When his year was up he flew back to San Francisco and received the same reception from anti-war protesters tens of thousands of American servicemen got. They were waiting for him at the airport with signs reading: “BABY KILLERS,” jeers and taunts of all kinds.
York followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work for Inland Steel Co. in Chicago, Ind. where he spent the next 13 1/2 years working in the steel mill. His dad worked 43 years in the mills at Inland until he retired.
“At 35 I decided to go to bible college and become a minister. I graduated from Florida Christian College in Kessimmee in 1990, but couldn’t get a church right after graduation. So I worked as a bus driver for Disney World for a little while,” York said with a smile.
“I became an independent Christian Church minister and got my first church in Illinois about 90 miles from St. Louis, Mo. A year later I became the pastor of a church in Alabama where I stayed for three years. Then I moved to my present church in Arcadia.
“I got my master’s degree at 50 and my doctorate at 61,” he said. “My thought has always been: The more I can learn the more I can teach.”
Name: Ronald Leroy York
D.O.B: 13 March 1950
Hometown: Hammond, Ind.
Currently: Arcadia, Fla.
Entered Service: 16 Jan. 1969
Discharged: 15 Nov. 1971
Unit: 34th Combat Engineers
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, 2 Overseas Bars, Vietnam Civil Actions Medal, Sharpshooter (M-14), Sharpshooter (M-16), Expert (Grenade)
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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